Every Effort

Every Effort

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Chris Seiple describes IGE's recent trip to Syria in the context of every Christian's calling.

"Given the experience of centuries, it is tempting for Christians to see Islam as the enemy. Often it has been the enemy. But if that remains our dominant paradigm for looking at the religion, we deny something of ourselves.... Christians must learn, as the bishops at Vatican II put it, to look on Muslims 'with respect' ... The question to be asked, then, is whether, face to face with Islam, Christians will be able to sustain, rebuild, and create strong and resilient communities that provide institutional anchorage for the faith to endure and flourish. Will they have the imagination to form the spiritual architecture of the societies of which they are a part?"{footnote}Robert Louis Wilken, "Christianity Face to Face with Islam," First Things, No 189 (January 2009), 25-6. {/footnote}

— Robert Louis Wilken, renowned Church historian

Christian Engagement: Cocoon or Catalyst?

Christians, especially evangelicals, have a tough time engaging, let alone respecting, Muslims. According to a September 2007 Pew Forum poll, only 24% of white evangelicals have a favorable impression of Muslims. {footnote}Please see the Pew Forum website: http://pewforum.org/surveys/religionviews07/. {/footnote} Last week, a new Pew Forum poll told us that over 60% of white evangelicals say that torture is often (18%) or sometimes (44%) justified{footnote}Please see the Pew Forum website: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1210/torture-opinion-religious-differences. {/footnote} against terrorists motivated by their own misunderstanding of Islam. The result, seemingly, is a de facto majority of white evangelicals who see Muslims as a monolith that threatens them instead of neighbors to be loved.

Certainly, evangelicals should support policies that provide for the "common defense" against all terrorists. However—whatever your definitions of evangelical, Muslim, or torture are—statistics like the above do not convey a winsome and irenic faith that makes "every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).

In our humble and ongoing attempt to be holy as broken followers of Christ, Christians can be catalytic and clear-eyed peacemakers, demonstrating the "imagination to form the spiritual architecture of the societies of which they are a part." 

To my mind, that imagination begins in the fourth chapter of John, where Jesus broke every social and religious norm of the day when he listened and spoke to a woman from a theologically and ethnically despised minority, the Samaritans. Instead of being defined against this woman and what she represented, he engaged her as an individual, listening first before speaking in a lovingly truthful manner that did not sacrifice substance or shy away from difference. This example is our common calling as Christians. {footnote}It is no accident that Jesus uses the parable of the "Good Samaritan" to illustrate who our neighbor is while implicitly shaming the religious establishment of the day. (Please see Luke 10: 25-35.) {/footnote}

Living out this kind of example is never easy. It is always easier to stay inside our comfortable cocoon. Yet to shy away from the most basic command of Christ to love our neighbor is to deny our faith and therefore what God intended for each of us.

Engaging Syria: Putting Belief into Action

Last month I spent a week just north of Samaria. It was my second trip to Syria in thirteen months. With me were ten devout evangelicals of various denominational backgrounds and one devout Muslim. For some, it was the first time they had ever met a Muslim or traveled to a Muslim-majority country. We went foremost to listen, with the desire to discern how we might play a positive role in Christian-Muslim and U.S.-Syria relations.

Syria, of course, does not enjoy a favorable impression in the United States. It has been ruled by the same family since 1970. Syria has been on the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism since we started keeping a list. Terrorists have snuck across Syria's border with Iraq to fight Americans. Syria also serves as home to the leadership of Hamas. Hamas is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, but also serves as the freely-elected government of Gaza.

With this backdrop as our delegation's starting point, it was all the more important to listen and understand the "starting point" for ordinary Syrians. As we listened, a composite impression formed, which I describe below. It remains merely an impression, according to my understanding thus far:

  • Syrians are a proud and hospitable people who know their rich history and are ready to seize their promising future. They clearly distinguish between American policy in the region—which they despise (we were asked several times if we worked for Bush)—and the American people, whom they respect and admire. They are excited about the election of President Obama because he represents a potential change in U.S. policy toward the region, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict.
  • They realize that they are not a democracy, but their politics is their business, not America's. "We don't like Republicans because they invade and kill us, and we don't like Democrats because they abandon us." A country of 20 million people, they have experienced the influx of two million Iraqis, 10% of their population, due to the American-initiated war next door. (Imagine if 36 million people suddenly came into the United States.) These refugees are in addition to the 500,000 Palestinians that already live in refugee camps in and around Damascus.
  • They have nothing against the Jews as individual people but see the establishment of Israel as the gravest injustice that Arabs have suffered in living memory (akin to white settlers taking Indian lands in North America simply because they could). While they would rather have the land back, they recognize the reality of Israel and the need for peace.
  • They strongly support Hamas, seeing it as legitimate resistance movement led by strong men of faith and family. It is strange to them that American policy is so fiercely against Hamas, given that it was freely elected and has staunchly stood against al-Qaeda and its entrance into, or manipulation of, Palestine. After Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, many devout Syrians traveled there to lend a helping hand in the same fashion as American churches went to Louisiana and Mississippi after hurricane Katrina.
  • They don't understand the American fascination with religious freedom. To them, the Abrahamic family gets along just fine in Syria, having lived side-by-side for centuries. Besides, why would anyone leave a religion (Islam) that is not only a faith, but a culture and way of life, a network of families and friends that have lived in the same town for centuries? What kind of person would betray this integrated understanding of identity? What kind of person would seek to instigate such a betrayal?
  • (Such thoughts were not articulated with anger but with genuine concern and curiosity. Still, ironically enough, some of Christian delegates were softly proselytized, which we took as the highest compliment possible—that someone would care enough about us individually to share their faith, even as it provided an opportunity to explain why we were Christians, i.e. to return the compliment by softly witnessing to them about our faith.)

As we received these impressions, we were careful to listen and show respect, offering our disagreements gently, when appropriate or necessary.

Laying the Foundation for a "Spiritual Architecture"

In the context of this general impression, three experiences in Syria stand out. First, we were blessed to spend time at the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus. Throughout a warm and wide-ranging conversation about theology, the Center's leadership constantly referenced the scriptures of the Qur'an, calling up specific verses from memory and then showing them to us via powerpoint. Self-described as "renewalist"—which they admitted was a minority position in Middle Eastern Islam—it was imperative for the Center to demonstrate that if Islam is to be renewed and relevant to the 21st century, then all Islamic thought and action must be properly rooted in scripture.

Second, we had an all-too-brief time at Kalamoon University—the first private university in the history of Syria. Kalamoon (which means ‘series of mountains' in Aramaic) has 3,000 students. Classes are conducted in English. The leadership, faculty, and students are beyond impressive. They are global citizens who want the very best for the world and their country. Our discussion of "religion and international affairs" could have taken place at any secular American university; especially as we heard from some that religion was the problem and shouldn't be discussed. The discussion was better than any secular American university, however, as it matter-of-factly included devout Muslim and Christian leaders from the community as equally valued perspectives.

Finally, we attended a two-day conference in Hama on "Religion & Respect: What We Can Learn From Each Other's Faith" (which IGE co-sponsored with our host, the al-Andaluz Institute for Islamic Studies, an all women's college). The conversation was remarkable on several fronts as trust was built among all parties.

We opened with an American-made documentary on Mohammed (God's final prophet according to Islamic teaching), noting the irony that we had to travel to Syria to watch it. It was also refreshing to hear from one of the imams present about the traditional teaching that converts from Islam are to be killed as apostates. He explained that this teaching is incorrect due to an improper understanding of the historical context of Qur'anic verses usually cited. {footnote}According to this imam, Mohammed gave the command to kill converts from Islam not as a function of faith but of national security. At a time when the early Muslims were few and vulnerable to attack from pagan tribes, to convert away from Islam was to necessarily limit the capacity of the group to defend itself. {/footnote}

This same imam told us that if someone's mind was at the mosque but his heart was in another faith, he would encourage him to change faith. The imam was sincere in his opinion. Still, legal and cultural norms suggest, as one Syrian pastor pointed out, that while it is easy for a Christian to become a Muslim—in this country where 10% of the population is Christian—it is essentially illegal for a Muslim to become a Christian. (There are also property issues involved which were less clear to us.)

The conference closed with another imam feeling comfortable enough to share with us that some of his friends had told him not to come to the conference and listen to the "American lies." We thanked him for coming, sharing in return that we also knew people in America who had cautioned us about coming to Syria and talking to Muslims.

That we had reached a point where we could share such feelings—as seemingly simple and inconclusive as they were—was, in fact, why we had come.

Conclusion: Building the "Spiritual Architecture" of a Global Society

If living with—by naming, respecting, and working across—our deepest differences is the defining issue of our age, what do our respective, and irreconcilable, faith traditions have to contribute? In particular, will Christians, as Robert Louis Wilken asks in the opening quotation, "have the imagination to form the spiritual architecture of the societies of which they are a part?"

At the conference in Hama, we were told about a visit the former Grand Mufti of Syria once had with Pope John Paul II. The Grand Mufti is reported to have told the Pope that the reason behind today's immorality is "you and me: we're not spreading the real teachings of our holy texts."

At dinner one night, we were discussing how some Muslim women are treated poorly in the more conservative areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I asked a particularly devout and cosmopolitan Syrian woman how she might engage these women, and men, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Her response contains the blueprint of a "spiritual architecture" that serves our common civilization.

She told me that she would first seek to understand the women's theological background. Otherwise, she said, "it might be my sheik's teachings against their sheik's teaching." (As with Protestantism, there is no central authority in Sunni Islam and therefore anyone can declare themselves a pastor or a sheik, with no theological authority to declare one pastor/sheik wrong.)

Next, she would try to understand their culture (which was implicitly understood as a derivative of theology). I asked why. She said she would need to know the culture if the people there were going to be able to love her. Only after they loved her, would she be ready to deliver her understanding of Islam's teachings about women.

In other words, without an understanding of theology and culture it was impossible to love and receive love. And without a context of mutually-understood love, there could be no message that would actually be received.

At the close of our conference on religion and respect, a conservative, white evangelical from our delegation spoke for the first time. He told the audience that before this trip, he had never met a Muslim before. But through the visit, and the conference in particular, he had been transformed by the respect and love he had received. He promised everyone present to tell his fellow Americans about this powerful experience in Syria, with Muslims.

In speaking with him later, it became clear to me that, amidst one of the most complicated geo-political situations in the world, an individual evangelical had learned that he could engage Muslims according to the best of his faith without sacrificing its substance. In fact, his faith was stronger as a result.

It is my belief that this individual, like the rest of our delegation, is now more "holy" because each had made "every effort" to "live in peace with all men and to be holy."

And all because our Muslim friends had simultaneously done the same for us: taking their faith so seriously that they dared to live it in a manner that we could understand and receive their love. 

This kind of engagement is not easy and it is fraught with the opportunity to be offended. But we must step outside of our cocoons and, according to our faith, be catalysts for peace. This paradoxical age of deeply irreconcilable but surprisingly compatible differences requires a "spiritual architecture" defined by devout people who practice the very best of their faith, while respecting (not just tolerating) their neighbor's.

For our part, if more Christians, and especially evangelicals, make "every effort" to follow the example of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, I know that we will be used in ways beyond our imagination.


If this topic is of interest to you, please join us for IGE's annual Global Leadership Forum, held in partnership with Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding on 16-17 June 2009. The conference will discuss "Evangelicals and Muslims: Conversations on Respect, Reconciliation, and Religious Freedom."

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